Historiography Saturday: Báthory Erzsébet

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Known in English as Elizabeth Bathory, Báthory Erzsébet was a 16th century Hungarian countess who has accrued enough of a legend to merit a separate Wikipedia page for her appearances in popular culture. The allegations agains the “Blood Countess” are difficult to fact-check due to the time lapse and written accounts appearing only a century following her death, but what is certain is that over three hundred witnesses testified at the trial of her alleged accomplices that she had tortured and killed dozens of young women. While the evidence suggests that she did not bathe in virgin blood in an attempt to retain her youth, her practices were clearly sadistic.

One of the many rumors surrounding Báthory was that she engaged in same-sex relationships. (She had male lovers and a husband as well with whom she may have shared letters comparing torture tips.) Along with questions regarding the reliability of fragmented historical evidence, cases such as Báthory’s require thought in how they should be presented. Serial killers capture the popular imagination, and while it is duplicitous to pretend that none have ever been queer (or to suppress mention of queer serial killers), the supposed association between queer people and violence has been a long-employed stereotype with its own awful consequences.

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Historiography Saturday: Loki

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Loki, the Norse trickster god, is credited with fathering a panoply of peculiar creatures (including the Midgard Serpent and the wolf Fenrir), but he is also on record as having given birth to one: Sleipnir, Odin’s horse. As the story goes, the gods commissioned a wall to surround their realm of Asgard, and promised an impossible fee to the builder if he completed the project within three months. Thanks to the aid of a powerful stallion the builder’s progress was rapid, and the gods demanded that Loki – who had suggested the stallion in the first place – sabotage the construction. He transformed into a mare and lured the stallion away, delaying the builder – actually a giant in disguise – from completing the project. When Loki returned he brought Sleipnir the colt as a gift to Odin, claiming to have given birth to it.

Although the story of Loki and Sleipnir is included in Wikipedia’s “LGBT themes in mythology” page, it is difficult to discern how it relates to contemporary terminology.Viking same-sex relations were stigmatized for the male receiving partner, adding a possible element of humiliation. While Loki does willingly engage in sex with a stallion, it is in the context of making amends for one of his mistakes, and there are no other direct references in Norse mythology to him sleeping with other male creatures; he does, however, change physical sex on several occasions. At least one prominent modern interpretation views him as bisexual, but – as ever – deities defy easy human categorization.

Historiography Saturday: Gladys Bentley

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The tux-wearing, blues-singing, self-described bulldagger known as Gladys Bentley played a somber tune in her recordings but switched out the lyrics to popular melodies at her New York City live performances to make the audience blush (and enrich her flirting with the available ladies). When the Depression hit and prohibition ended, taking with them the popularity of her music and the tolerance for outspoken lesbianism, she found a brief resurgence in the gay bars of San Francisco, but retired to become a minister.

Bentley’s dramatic retirement, marked by an article in Ebony magazine entitled “I Am Woman Again”, was a public departure from both show business and homosexuality. In the context of high-profile McCarthyism witch hunts her decision made sense; looking back it makes for a striking example of how an individual’s insistence on a certain identity is not above questioning. (One possible explanation for her subsequent marriage is that she was attracted to men as well as women, but given her claims to have married a woman in a civil ceremony and her bookings in lesbian bars, heterosexuality seems unlikely, and in a subsequent interview she implied that she was having a relationship with both a man and a woman.)

Historiography Saturday: Matt Baker

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“Golden Age” comics artist Clarence Matthew Baker is remembered primarily for his “good girl” pieces, a genre featuring scantily-clad pin up-style heroines, but he was involved in pencil and ink work for romance, Western, and science fiction styles as well. His cover for Phantom Lady #17 received a special shoutout in Seduction of the Innocent, an exaggerated chronicle of comics’ moral failures that helped spawn the Comics Code AuthorityIt Rhymes with Lust, considered one of the precursors to the modern graphic novel, was another one of his projects. Along with his artistic accomplishments, Baker is notable for being the first black comic book illustrator; his entrance into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame; and his uncommonly snappy taste in clothing.

Vehement disagreement exists among Baker’s friends and relations regarding his sexual orientation. As chronicled in the biography Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour, accounts range from assertions that he was gay, to outright denials, to a joke about him being a womanizer. Baker himself never spoke on the issue, leaving it permanently unresolved barring new evidence.

Historiography Saturday: Philip II of Macedon

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Before Alexander the Great forged his continent-spanning empire, there was his father, Philip II of Macedon. While not as flashy of a military boy wonder, Philip had his own share of sizable military victories, triumphing over the Sacred Band of Thebes and coining the phrase “divide and conquer”; he even perfected the phalanx, a formation instrumental to his successes. His grip on mineral resources gave him the wealth to elevate his rule into a full monarchy, then unusual for Greece. Alexander inherited and executed his plans after Philip fell to assassination, the details of which make for a historiography question.

Accounts of Philips death are consistent (he was murdered by a former bodyguard) but the motives vary from one account to another. Aristotle, Philip’s contemporary, claims that Philip’s father-in-law offended the assassin, and other historians believe that Alexander and his mother were involved. The third prevailing theory (and the reason Philip is included in this blog) is a complicated story of revenge, wherein Philip and the bodyguard had once been lovers. If true, it would suggest that Philip was as bisexual as his son.

 

Historiography Saturday: Caligula

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Caligula (“little soldier’s boot”) was the nickname of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, one of the more notorious Roman emperors. While the firsthand accounts of his reign have nearly all been lost to history, the surviving contemporary and posthumous accounts do not paint a flattering picture: over a short period the new emperor went from a beloved favorite of the army to a leader known for irresponsible spending habits and wanton cruelty. When he planned to move to Alexandria from Rome, a political play that would have crippled the Senate, he was assassinated.

From the initial biographies to an infamous film adaptation, Caligula’s story has been used as a morality play for the past two millennia, making it difficult to discern what his reign was really like. The more outrageous claims, like his relationship with his favorite horse, were likely rumors, but broader accusations of sexual deviancy (incest and homosexual relations, for example) are more difficult to address, along with the assertion that he was insane, in part due to a Roman cultural meme that paired perversity and madness with poor governorship. (Seneca’s description of Caligula as appallingly ugly and pale might be a more accessible ad hominem to a modern audience.) It is possible that Caligula was bisexual, but not impossible that accounts of him as the passive partner in same-sex intercourse were intended as slander given the Roman expectations for adult male sexuality.

Historiography Saturday: Gaëtan Dugas

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Popularized in the late 1980s as “Patient Zero,” the man responsible for the introduction and spread of HIV in North America, Gaëtan Dugas was a Canadian flight attendant with an extensive sexual history who died of AIDS. His notoriety, ignited by journalist Randy Shilts‘ book And The Band Played On, was part of a calculated publicity ploy meant to draw attention to the work so its broader message indicting the Reagan administration and calling for increased attention to the pandemic would reach critics. Sure enough, a promiscuous homosexual scapegoat was enough to win Band an article in Time magazine and a subsequent spot on the bestseller list. The term “Patient Zero” even became slang for “index case,” the first recorded example of a medical condition, despite the fact that Dugas had been referred to as “Patient O” in the original study (“O” stood for “Out of California”). The truth of Dugas’ life has largely vanished from the public consciousness, though a recording does exist of him speaking at an HIV/AIDS forum prior to his death.

In addition to illustrating the complexity of compiling medical knowledge with limited resources, Dugas’ story also raises the question of whether the end result of knowingly cultivating a myth can justify its positive consequences. History is written with an agenda in mind; it behooves its creators to pay careful thought to whether their cause is a responsible one, and who is worth sacrificing to achieve it.